When criticized on rights, autocratic governments often try desperately to prove their legitimacy.
A textbook example is the Egyptian government’s lashing out at recent Human Rights Watch research on how Egypt has imposed arbitrary funding, research, and registration obstacles on the country’s independent environmental groups, activists, journalists, and academics.
This week, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the report as deplorable, counterproductive, and misleading, saying it was based on “unknown sources” and “unidentified groups.” But the government response failed to dispute any of the report’s central findings.
Human Rights Watch, like most human rights and media organizations in Egypt, redacts the identities of people it interviews to protect them from the well-documented reprisals against critics and families. Activists have requested anonymity as they described harassment and intimidation tactics, including arrests and travel restrictions. These experiences are similar to tactics used against independent local and international groups more generally since 2014 as part of a relentless crackdown on civil society.
The Foreign Ministry’s statement also reveals how the Egyptian government is attempting to deflect criticism of its human rights record ahead of COP27, by hiding behind the UN. Instead of responding to the serious concerns reported by Egyptian environmental groups, the government cited United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) rules to recommend additional organizations be admitted to this year’s COP. Our research indicates that Egyptian authorities have in closed meetings asked several Egyptian groups to participate in COP27 events, mostly around “welcome” topics.
The Secretariat of the UNFCCC has told Human Rights Watch that one-off admission to attend COP27, outside the usual accreditation process, was granted for more than 30 Egyptian groups, all “endorsed” through the Egyptian government. Human Rights Watch wrote follow-up letters to the Egyptian authorities and UNFCCC asking for an explanation on this process and what steps were taken to ensure all groups, whether or not they have close relationships with the government, had access to it, but has not received a substantive response.
In its statement, the Foreign Ministry said, “All efforts should be consolidated to ensure … the implementation of global climate commitments.” The government can prove it is serious about this by easing its iron grip on civic space and upholding the rights of those who are working to protect the climate.